Well, Jake’s alive, but he’s lost Stefan. How is he going to cope in this unknown world without him?
Of course, the first thing I was going to have to do was to find our way out of the forest and to some sort of civilisation – and quickly, because although Hansi seemed to be breathing without too much difficulty, he was still losing blood and needed proper medical care. Naturally I had no idea which way to go: Stefan, with his customary efficiency, had kept his bag on his back right through the final battle, and so he would be able to find his way back to Orschweiler (as it was in his world) straight away: I was sure the compass would be in its usual place in his bag. Quite how he would account for the two months during which he had been missing was another issue, but at least he would be able to get out of the forest.
I, on the other hand, had barely escaped in the clothes I stood up in, and consequently had neither compass nor any idea of which way led back to Orschwiller. And I remembered walking round and round in circles up here the day I had stumbled upon the first hut…
I looked at the hut, trying to remember the way down. Usually we had walked away in… roughly that direction, I thought. Okay, time to trust to luck again…
“This way,” I said, trying to sound confident. “It’s not too far….”
“Hey, Jake, stop!” cried Oli. “Look!”
He was pointing back at the hut, and for a horrible moment I thought one or more of the Greys had somehow managed to follow us: there was a figure in the doorway. But it looked too small to be a Grey… and then it fell forward onto its face and I started to run.
“Stefan!” I yelled, reaching him and kneeling down beside him. “Are you okay?”
I rolled him onto his back and saw that there was a gash on the side of his head, though a quick check revealed no other injuries. We’d left the first aid kit behind, of course, but Tibor had apparently stuffed a couple of bandages in his pocket in case Hansi’s dressings needed changing, and he held one out to me. But before I could put it on Stefan gave a groan and opened his eyes.
“What are you doing here?” I asked him. “Why didn’t you go home?”
“I couldn’t go home wearing a Star of David, could I?” he said, managing a weak smile. “And… I got a short way into the tunnel that led back home, and then I thought about what we said to each other last night, how life back home is safe and dull and pointless, and how being with you for two months has been the only part of my life that meant anything. And then I realised that I couldn’t let you go.”
He sat up and took off his bag, and inside was his water bottle. He handed it to me and I used a little water to wash the blood off his head before applying the bandage.
“So,” he continued, “I decided to carry on with the adventure and stay with you. After all, I knew that you could never go back to your world now, so you need someone sensible to keep you out of trouble in this new world.”
“What happened to your head?” I asked. “I mean, getting blown up in a collapsing tunnel doesn’t seem very sensible to me.”
“I was already in the hut when the tunnel blew up. I think it was a piece of wood from the trapdoor that hit me. I got dizzy for a moment and fell over, but I’ll be fine now. And wanting to stay with someone you love seems completely sensible to me.”
He got to his feet and hugged me hard, and the rest of the boys cheered and clapped – I think Stefan had actually forgotten that they were there when he made that very public profession of love. But it was obvious that they were entirely supportive. I wondered if that would be true of the rest of the population of this new world.
Stefan took the compass (so I’d been right about that!) out of his bag and pointed off in a direction not too far from the one I’d been about to take before he appeared. “Someone ought to scout ahead,” he said. “If this world is hostile we shouldn’t just walk off blindly. Did anyone bring a rifle with them?”
Nobody had – they’d just dumped them in the office and run. But Stefan and I were still wearing our pistols, even though mine was not loaded. This meant that between us we had two handguns and ten bullets.
“Stefi, I don’t think guns are the answer,” I said. “We’re not equipped to fight a war – even with time to prepare and grenades and petrol bombs we still got chased out of the hall in about two minutes. Out here in the open… let’s just go and see what happens. And if the natives are hostile, I think we should just surrender.”
Stefan didn’t seem too keen on the word ‘surrender’, but the rest of the boys were nodding in agreement: clearly they’d seen all the fighting they wanted to see.
So we didn’t bother with an advance scout after all: instead we just kept together. But before we left the hut we removed the front door – one of the hinges was hanging off, and the other responded to Stefan’s little screwdriver – put the mattress from the bunk on top of it and used it as a stretcher for Hansi. We all took a turn at helping to carry it – with one on each corner it wasn’t too heavy.
It didn’t take us too long to find our way back to the road. The tarmac here was jet black rather then the usual grey, and when we touched it it seemed almost sticky, but it was a road, and that meant civilisation. So we started to follow the road in the direction of Kintzheim – it was easier to carry Hansi on a tarmac road than it would have been following another track through the woods down to Orschwiller.
After a kilometre or so we stopped for a rest. Once again we had no food and no water except what was in Stefan’s bottle, but this time we didn’t care: we were so glad to be alive that such minor discomforts seemed unimportant. I checked on Hansi and found that he seemed to be breathing steadily, so it looked as though the chest wound hadn’t punctured the lung, though I was still concerned about blood loss, and so after we had rested for about fifteen minutes I said that we should keep moving until we found a telephone or some other means of summoning help.
So we kept moving, and to my delight we finally reached a point where I could see rooftops: there was a village ahead.
“I’m going to run ahead and try to get someone to call for help,” I said. “I hope someone here speaks a language I can understand - if not I’ll mime, or something.”
I started to jog down the road, but before I got more than twenty metres I saw a party of cyclists heading towards us. I stopped and waited for them.
“Bonjour!” I greeted them, once they reached me.
“Sorry,” said the leading rider, a boy a little older than me. “I’m just visiting, and my French is pretty feeble. I don’t suppose you speak good English, do you?”
“I definitely speak English,” I replied. “Look, I know this is going to sound like a really stupid question, but what country is this?”
The half-dozen cyclists looked at each other and laughed.
“You’re right,” said the leader, “it is a stupid question. This is Europe, of course – where did you think you were?”
“Yes, Europe. This little bit of it is called the State of Elsass, but it’s all Europe.”
“Okay. And what year is it?”
“Hey, look, you haven’t escaped from the local asylum, have you?”
“No. We’ve been… away, that’s all. So, what’s the date?”
“It’s Friday August 28th. 2009, before you ask.”
“Thank you! Now… we’ve got a couple of injured kids here and we need medical help. Can one of you ride back into the village and call for an ambulance?”
“I can do better than that,” said the leader, and he pulled a small mobile phone from the pouch around his waist and hit a couple of keys.
“Yes, hello?” I heard him say. “I’ve got some kids up here with me who need medical assistance… what’s wrong, exactly?” he asked me.
“Bleeding – a couple of shrapnel injuries,” I told him.
He gave me a very strange look but relayed this information down the phone.
“Okay,” he concluded. “Have you got my position? Great, thanks.”
“They reckon a little over five minutes,” he told me. “So, who are you guys?”
“We’re the Mad Hintraten Stokers’ platoon, survivors of the Grey invasion of the Kingdom of Kerpia and Transkerpia in the year 2762,” I told him. “Actually, my name is Jake Stone and I’m from England. These are my friends.”
“Oh, right – have you been playing some sort of role-playing game up there?”
“Not exactly. So what about you? What are you doing here?”
“We’re on holiday. We’re staying at the camp-site in Schlettstadt, and today we thought we’d ride up and have a look at the castle. My name’s Colin Jordan. Maybe when you’ve got your friends sorted out you can drop in and see us – later this afternoon, perhaps?”
“Okay. Then you can fill us in a bit on how things work around here.”
“Right. Hey, what’s that symbol round your neck?”
My swastika was showing again, and the fact that he didn’t know what it was showed that, once again, history was different round here.
“I think it’s a Hindu symbol,” offered one of Colin’s friends.
“Yes – you know, it was one of those old-time religions way back when – from out East somewhere, I think. India, or somewhere like that. We studied them in history a couple of trimesters ago. Except… I think this one’s the wrong way round.”
“Oh.” Colin didn’t seem very interested.
“Do you recognise this one?” asked Stefan, stepping forward and displaying the Star of David.
“Yes, of course. That’s the Jewish symbol. That’s one of the old religions that’s still around, so I’d reckon everyone will know that one. Got any more?”
But the Kerpians came from a secular society, and so none of them was wearing any sort of religious symbol. And at that point the ambulance arrived. It looked pretty much like an ordinary ambulance – it even had the word ‘Ambulance’ stencilled on it – though the fact that the crew spoke English was a little more unexpected. They examined Hansi, had a quick look at Markus’s arm and then said they needed to get Hansi into hospital to control the bleeding and to check properly for other damage.
“Where are you taking him?” I asked as they loaded him aboard.
“To the hospital in Schlettstadt. Do you have his parents’ address?”
“He’s an orphan,” I said. “And he doesn’t speak English. Can you take Markus – the boy with the arm injury – as well? He doesn’t speak English, either, but it’ll be easier for Hansi if there’s someone he can talk to when he wakes up. We’ll get there as soon as we can so we can translate.”
So they drove off with Hansi and Markus aboard. Colin told me where the campsite was and then rode off with his friends, and the rest of us carried on down the road to Kintzheim.
I went into a shop in the village and asked if the shopkeeper could let us have a bottle of water. I tried paying in Euros, but the shopkeeper had never heard of that currency, and the same went for Sterling. I didn’t even bother asking about Reichsmarks – if nobody in this world knew what a swastika looked like I thought it was a certainty that they wouldn’t accept Nazi currency. In the end the shopkeeper gave me a couple of bottles on credit, which I thought was pretty decent: I didn’t think that would happen in too many places back in my own world.
We walked on down to Schlettstadt and found it looking a lot better than on my last visit, when it had been called Sélestat and had been inhabited only by corpses. This town looked modern and clean, and all the cars seemed to be electric powered, rather like the ones in the Grey world. We asked where the hospital was – everyone seemed to speak English – and received helpful directions, and when we got there nobody seemed too put out at having a crowd of young boys dressed in tatty uniforms (and one in a little blue dress: Oli had been wearing his dress under his uniform, and had wasted no time in dumping the military kit – except for his hat, of course - as soon as we were out of the hut) walk into the reception area.
We had to wait for quite a while, but eventually a doctor came out to see us.
“The chest wound was only superficial,” he told me, “but there was a nasty piece of jagged metal in his hip. What happened?”
“It was a grenade,” I explained. “We were in a fight… look, I suppose we need to report to the authorities, or something, because we need to explain who we are and try to find out what to do next. Is there a police station around here?”
“Not close by – it’s on the other side of the railway, in the town centre. Look, I’m off duty in half an hour, and I admit I’d be really interested to learn how you managed to get into a battle when there hasn’t been a war anywhere on the planet in thirty years – so if you’d like to wait you can tell me your story and then maybe I’ll be able to advise you on where to go next.”
And maybe you’ll just call the local loony bin to come and collect us, I thought. But aloud I said, “Thank you, Dr…?”
“I’m Doctor Feldela,” he told me.
“I’m Jake Stone – or Stone Jake, if you do it that way round in this country.”
“Personal name, then surname,” the doctor told me. So apparently I was back to being Jake Stone.
When he returned half an hour later Markus was with him, though the doctor said it would be better to keep Hansi in overnight to make sure his blood pressure was back to normal and to give him a chance to rest his leg. When I translated this Tibor insisted on staying with him so that Hansi wouldn’t wake up alone in a strange land, and the doctor said there would be no objection to that. So he took Tibor through to Hansi’s room and then came back to Reception, collected the rest of us and took us to a fast food restaurant that served Frankfurter-type sausages and small disc-shaped fried potatoes. We all ate hungrily.
“Doctor, this is very kind,” I said, “but one of our problems is that we haven’t got any money. So I don’t know when we’ll be able to pay you back.”
“Oh, money isn’t important,” he replied, which I thought made this a very peculiar world indeed. “So – where exactly do you come from?”
I took a deep breath. “I come from England; Stefan comes from a world where this place is part of Germany; Alain and Oli come from a world where it’s part of France; and everyone else comes from a world where this is part of… I suppose it would be Hungary.”
I sat back and waited for him to summon the men in white coats, but instead he said, “Uh-huh. And how did you get here?”
“There was a place up in the Vosges where the people of the Hungarian world had found a way to travel between different versions of reality, or different versions of history. I stumbled into it by accident, then I found Stefan, and since then we’ve been moving between worlds and collecting friends as we went. But there was a problem: a hostile race found the place where you can move between worlds – it’s called a Nexus Room – and invaded, and it was while we were escaping from them that Hansi and Markus got hurt.”
Listening to what I was saying I was tempted to call the fruitcake farm myself, but once again the doctor seemed unperturbed.
“So you found a parallel interchange,” he said. “I’d heard there was some research being done into that, but I had no idea it was actually possible. Can you show me where this place is?”
“Well, I can show you where it was. It’s gone now, though – the power failed and the whole place blew up. So we can’t get home, which is why we need to find out what’s going to happen to us now.”
“Maybe it’s as well it has gone if there are violent people on the other side,” said the doctor.
“You mean, you actually believe me? I thought you’d reckon we were all insane!”
“Well, I did wonder. But after hearing your friend with the injured arm speaking – it’s clearly a proper language, but not one I can recognise – and examining their injuries, which are consistent with grenade explosions, I have to accept that this is possible. And, like I said, I know that this sort of movement between realities is theoretically possible. And somehow you don’t look like a fantasist, or sound like one, either. So, yes, I think I believe you.
“As for where you go from here… we’ll have to speak to the proper authorities, but I’m sure it will be possible to find you a place in a Youth Residence somewhere. And once you are able to start studying again you’ll start to earn some credits, and that will give you some independence. Er… you do use computers in your world?”
“Yes – well, all of us except Alain and Oli. But the problem is going to be the language: Stefan and I are the only ones who speak English. Which is a point: how come everyone here speaks English? This is a part of France… or Germany… isn’t it?”
“No it’s a part of Europe. Europe is a single country in this world, and English and French are the common languages – French for historical reasons, of course, and English because it’s the language the non-European world uses for trade. It is true that there are several different states in Europe, and each state has its own language, so everyone here speaks Elsassisch. But we can all speak French and English, and here in Elsass we mostly speak German, too. And it won’t be too hard for your friends to learn French and English: we have a sort of computerised instant translator system they can use to help them learn. And if their language isn’t in the database there are specialists who can study it and work out what it means, and then gradually build up a module for it.”
“I speak their language fairly fluently,” I said, “And so do the rest of us who don’t come from their world. They’ve got a method of implanting linguistic knowledge directly into the brain.”
“Now that would be useful! I’m afraid we haven’t got anything like that, though, so it will mean study. But I’m sure you and the others can help them. Now if you would excuse me a moment I’ll see about finding you somewhere to stay tonight.”
He pulled out a mobile phone and started to talk to someone in a German dialect that I couldn’t begin to follow, though Stefan told me he understood some of it: it was, he said, the local version of German. The Party didn’t really approve – it wanted everyone to speak proper High German – and so Stefan had never learned the local dialect himself, though some of his friends at primary school had used it.
It took Dr Feldela three calls, but after the third one he told us that he’d found us a community hall we could sleep in tonight, and that one of his friends was trying to find us somewhere permanent in one of the other towns and cities in the state.
“Thank you very much,” I said. “Look, there are a couple of other things we need to know – about culture here, mainly. See, a couple of my friends… well… look, what’s the attitude to sex in this country?”
“What do you mean, exactly?”
“Well… if two boys wanted to… to do things together, would they get into trouble?”
“Oh, I see! No, not at all. It’s perfectly normal, and everyone recognises it as such. Obviously boys shouldn’t get girls pregnant at your age, and of course you’re not allowed to make anyone do something he or she doesn’t want to, but apart from that it’s your business and nobody else’s.”
“Great!” I caught myself and tried to rein in it a bit. “That is, um, Tibor and Hansi will be pleased to hear that. And the other thing is that none of us have got any papers – well, none that would be recognised here, anyway. Is that going to be a problem?”
“Not really. You’ll be asked to attest formally as to how you got here, and after that you’ll be classed as refugees – not that we’ve had any of those in this country for over twenty years – and issued with some new papers. And after that you’ll be full members of the community. But don’t be surprised if a lot of scientists and similar types want to talk to you about the parallel interchange, though – they’re bound to want to learn anything you can tell them about it.”
“It won’t be much, I’m afraid: we saw some technical stuff on the computer at the Hub, but neither of us understood a word of it.”
“Oh, well, I’m sure they’ll still want to see you. Now if you’d like to come with me I’ll take you to where you’ll be staying tonight.”
He took us outside the hospital. Along the front of it there was a row of tram stops, and he took us to one of these and subsequently onto a number 4 tram. We changed trams in the town centre and got onto a number 6, and this took us out towards the southern edge of town. And on neither journey did the doctor seem to make any payment, and nor was there a conductor on the tram.
“How are you paying for the tickets?” I asked him, just before we got off the second tram.
“Pay? You don’t pay for tram rides – they’re free. It means that most people don’t need individual transport at all – the public transport network covers the country well enough for most people.”
“But… how is it all paid for? Does it come out of central taxes?”
“Well, partly, though taxes here are fairly low. I think it would take too long to try to explain the economics of our world now, and I’m not exactly an expert, anyway. Just accept that things are different here now to how they were thirty years ago, and how they probably are in your worlds. All you need to know is that public transport is generally free.”
I was starting to like this place a lot, though I couldn’t understand how you could operate free services without some fairly massive taxation somewhere. But I wasn’t going to let it bother me too much.
Once we had left the tram the doctor took us a short way along a street to a small hall. He knocked on the door of the house next door and had a brief conversation with the man who answered the door, and the man then opened up the hall and took us inside. It was quite a small hall, but there was plenty of room for nine boys to sleep on the floor, even if they didn’t want to stay close together the way we generally did.
“A friend is bringing some sleeping bags round in a while,” the man told us. “And we’re trying to find some clothes for you, too, in case you want to get out of those uniforms. Those might not arrive before tomorrow morning, though.”
“That’s okay – and thanks very much for everything you’re doing for us.”
“I’m working tomorrow,” the doctor told us, “so I can’t come with you myself, but if you’d like to come to the hospital in the morning we’ll arrange for someone to meet you there to escort you to whichever Residence can take you. Here’s my phone number in case you need me in the meantime.” And he handed me a card and left.
The sleeping bags arrived shortly after we got there, and although it was still only mid-afternoon we hadn’t had a lot of sleep lately and several of the boys just wanted to go straight to bed. But I wanted to find out a bit more about this place, and so Stefan and I asked our host how to find the camp-site and then took another free tram to within walking distance of it.
“What did you think of the castle?” I asked Colin, once we had found his tent.
“Interesting. It’s strange to think that there was a time when people had to build massive castles to keep other people out. It must have been scary living in a world where war could break out at any moment.”
“Well, the last big war here wasn’t that long ago,” I pointed out.
“I suppose that depends how you define ‘not long ago’,” said Colin. “I reckon two hundred years is a pretty long time, myself.”
“Two hundred years? Is it really that long?”
“Didn’t you do history at school?”
“Well, yes, but I suspect my version of it is a bit different from yours. See, we don’t actually come from this world at all.”
I thought that would draw howls of disbelief, but in fact his reply had me gaping.
“Do you really come from off-world?” he asked. “I thought the Tammids were the only other race we’ve met so far, and you’re obviously not a Tammid. Which planet do you come from?”
And that was asked totally straight: it was a genuine question, not some sort of sarcastic put-down.
“Well, this one, just not this version of it… you mean, space travel exists here?”
He stared at me. “Of course it exists! Where have you been for the past thirty years?”
“That’s a long story. Do you know what…” I tried to remember what Dr Feldela had called it. “A parallel interchange is?”
“Yes, you do, Col,” said one of his friends. “You know, it’s that theory that says there are other versions of this world, and that it should be possible to move between the various versions.”
“That’s right,” I said. “Except it’s not just a theory, because in the world I was in last it’s a reality.”
“Wow, you mean you’re from a different version of Earth?”
“That’s right. Actually, me and my friends are from four different versions of Earth. This is the seventh… no, wait – the eighth version I’ve been in.”
So I told them a bit about the worlds I’d seen, and though one or two of them seemed a bit sceptical at first, the detail – and, of course, the injuries they’d seen on Hansi and Markus – soon convinced them.
“So there’s a version of Earth where we’re all descended from reptiles?” asked Colin. “That must have been hideous.”
“Actually it was a lot like this one – electric cars, buildings with curvy architecture… but the Greys themselves didn’t think the way we do, and their view of life is very selfish – sort of ‘if you’ve got something I want I’ll take it if I can get away with it’. That’s why they invaded Kerpia, to help themselves to the uranium there. So – tell me about the space travel, because as far as I know none of the other Earths I’ve been to had that.”
So they explained that around thirty years ago an alien spaceship had crash-landed in Sweden. And instead of doing all the things Hollywood has suggested would happen, involving things like tanks and nukes and medical experiments, the people close to the crash site had helped the aliens repair their ship and, eventually, depart unmolested. And so they came back, and clearly these were Close Encounters aliens, rather than Mars Attacks or Independence Day aliens, because they spoke to the Swedish government, who were entirely receptive to them, and one thing led to another, most importantly to the giving of the technology for faster than light travel.
“Lucky they crashed in Sweden and not in Moscow or the Nevada Desert,” I commented. “I bet things would have been different there.”
“Why?” asked Colin, and so I learned that the Cold War had never happened: America was a peaceful farming and industrial country that, like every other country, had no army to speak of, and Russia had been an integral part of a peaceful Europe since Napoleon had conquered it…
Yes, here Napoleon had ruled the whole of Europe, including Britain and Russia, and though the French Empire had gradually reverted to a lot of independent states over the next hundred and fifty years, they all remained in a general alliance, and there hadn’t been a war of any sort in Europe since the Revolt of the Two Sicilies in 1843. And that had been put down within a month.
So for the past twenty years the human race had been able to travel far beyond the solar system and so had access to almost unlimited mineral resources. Plans were already under way for permanent colonies on some of the uninhabited planets that had been discovered, and the Tammids – the aliens who had started all this by crashing in northern Sweden – had been able to direct their human allies to suitable places to colonise safely.
And that was why the economy here was so different: humans were no longer dependent on dwindling resources; food could be grown off-world, where whole planets could be given over to the cultivation of crops; and, once the colonies were established, over-population would cease to exist. I didn’t understand the economics of it all, and I don’t think Colin and his friends really did, either, but the bottom line was that this was going to be a really good place to live. And maybe I would even get to visit other planets in the future, not just different versions of this one.
“When we get back to the hall,” Stefan said to me afterwards as we walked back to the tram stop, “I think we should both give Olivier a massive hug and a kiss, because this looks like a truly good world.”
“Okay,” I said. “Obviously I don’t want you to get into the habit of kissing other boys, but I think perhaps this time you’re right.”
“I’m always right. I nearly wasn’t: I nearly didn’t come with you. But I got it right before it was too late.”
“Yes, you did,” I said, and I hugged him hard.
Next day our host gave us each a cereal bar for breakfast, which wasn’t quite up to one of my sausage and bacon specials, but it did fill a hole. And just after that he presented us with a selection of clothes to choose from: apparently he’d had a phone round several friends and acquaintances for us. Oli decided to keep his dress, but the rest of us found tee-shirts and shorts that would fit, and it felt a lot more comfortable than our uniforms: the weather was still very warm. Radu selected a couple of extra sets for Tibor and Hansi, who would otherwise be stuck with their uniforms. We all decided to keep our army hats, though – we felt they were sort of like a campaign medal, somehow.
At the hospital we found Hansi up and about, though Dr Feldela told him not to walk too much for a day or so to give the wound a proper chance to heal. Also waiting was a boy of twelve whom the doctor introduced to us as ‘my nephew Paul’.
“He’s going to take you to the Youth Residence we’ve found for you,” he told me. “I’m sure everything will go smoothly, but if you do need any help with settling in, you’ve got my number.”
We thanked him very much and went with Paul to a tram stop and thence to the railway station, and here we caught a train heading south, still without having to buy a ticket. The first station we stopped at was called Hirtengaerten.
“Hey, Oli,” I said, “this is where you come from!”
He looked out of the window at what looked like a big industrial estate in the middle of nowhere.
“I’m not sure I’d like it,” he said. “It looks different, with all those big ugly metal buildings. Our farm was right out in the country, like this, but at least the buildings were proper ones made of stone. I liked it there – except for when they decided to kill me, that is. Since then I’ve decided I like being with you a lot more!”
The third station was called Colmer, and although this was a far bigger town than the one Alain had known – it looked more like the one I’d visited, briefly, with Jean-Marie two months earlier – Paul told us that many of the buildings in the centre of town were very old.
“Maybe that part of town wouldn’t look so very different to the place where you grew up, then,” I commented to Alain.
“Maybe. I think I’d like to come and have a look round sometime,” he said to Paul in French. “Will I be able to?”
“Of course – once you’ve got settled in you can do whatever you want, except when you’re studying, of course.”
“I’m not sure about that,” said Alain. “Studying, I mean. It sounds like hard work to me, and I managed to get through the first sixteen years of my life without bothering.”
“It’ll be different here,” I told him. “For a start you’ll have us to help you, and for a second, if we’re going to stick together in the future you’ll need to work. It’ll be a lot easier for you than for the Kerpians, anyway, because you already speak French.”
“That’s true. And I have to set a good example to my little brother, I suppose.”
And he proceeded to set a very bad example by grabbing Oli, tickling him and doing things he shouldn’t have been doing – at least in public – beneath Oli’s dress. Oli obviously loved it, wriggling and squealing happily. None of us was too bothered, and I was delighted to see that Paul didn’t seem fazed by it, either: obviously the doctor had been telling the truth when he said that sex wasn’t a taboo subject here.
Two stops after Colmer came Rufach, and as the train pulled out of that station it was Stefan’s turn to look out of the right-hand window, telling us that the building that had been his school in his own world was just beyond the main road that ran on an embankment alongside the railway. And about fifteen minutes after that the train arrived at Milhüsa, which was called Mülhausen in Stefan’s world and Mulhouse in mine, and here we left the train and took a tram out into the suburbs to the north-east of town.
“This is really close to where I used to live,” Stefan told us as we left the tram and started walking. “There’s a massive forest out to the east, and me and my friends used to play out there when I was little. And then later our Jungvolk troop did some training out there, too. It was a really good place – if it’s there in this world I’ll take you and show you.”
He switched to French to ask Paul if it was still there, and Paul assured him that it was, getting a big smile from Stefan.
And so we came to the Youth Residence where we were going to live: it was a modern building on the edge of the city, with open country beyond and the edge of Stefan’s forest visible in the distance. Inside the director made us feel at home straight away, and any fears I had about being stuck either in a big dormitory, or on my own away from Stefan, disappeared as soon as the director told us that most of the rooms had two beds, but that there were bunks available if we wanted to go three or four to a room. As there were eleven of us I was a bit worried that someone would get left out, but Tibor and Hansi immediately invited Radu to share with them – “After all,” Hansi said, “we won’t be doing anything you haven’t seen us do before!” And I wondered if this time Radu might even get invited to join in.
Stefan and I had a small room on the top floor. The beds started out on opposite sides of the room, but we soon fixed that. And that night we were able just to relax and hold each other without worrying at all about what was going on in the world outside.
So that’s how we came to start our new lives. I know I’m going to miss my parents, though maybe one day the scientists here will be able to find a way to open a Nexus Room the way the Kerpians did (perhaps the Tammids can help them), and then I might be able to get back to my own world, at least to visit. But here I’m not invisible any longer: now I have a group of friends who have been through some very tough experiences with me and who I know I can rely on absolutely. I’ve got a chance to have a great life in a world that seems free from most of the problems I knew back home. And I’ve got Stefan, and with him beside me the future looks wonderful. What more could I ask?
Well, of course I wasn't going to split them up – how could I possibly have done that? As I've mentioned at the end of other stories, I'm a sucker for a happy ending.
So that's it. If you want to let me have your final thoughts – including whether or not you'd be interested in following Jake and his friends a little further, because I have had a few thoughts about a possible sequel – please send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
This is where I say thank you to everyone who has written to me already – I always enjoy getting feedback, and I've really appreciated every mail I have received.
I do have another story almost ready for you, and I'll start posting it in a couple of weeks' time. It's called Scarface and the Alien, and you'll find it in the Young Friends section.
Copyright 2009: all rights reserved. Please do not repost, reprint or otherwise reproduce this or any part of it anywhere without my written permission.